Winches cleaning

Let’s remove winch grime! Many of us have completed the nautical “Honey Do List” this spring. For the rest of us who have sailed through July and not yet maintained our winches before the yearly cruise in August, here are some ideas…

A couple of years ago, Practical Sailor published a comparative analysis of the different greases to be used during our winch maintenance process. I do not remember however having read specifics about how to clean them!

I recently helped a friend to rig his newly acquired 25-year-old Tartan 31. While raising the main with the deck-mounted winch, my eardrums were assaulted by the recalcitrant clanging and crunching noises that threatened to crush his wallet.

I cleaned enough of these fine pieces of clockwork to ascertain these winches did not received any TLC for at least 12 years. The procedure is always the same:

  1. Print the schematics of the winches.
  2. Bring necessary tools: screw driver, needle plier, very small screwdriver, metric and SAE hex keys and maybe a small rubber mallet. For cleaning, prepare an old tooth brush, a cheap stencil brush, perhaps a brass brush, lots of t-shirt towels, heavy dishwashing gloves. Dawn old clothes: solvents are really stinky.
  3. Create a receptacle such as a tent in which jumping parts would remain contain instead of taking a dive in the juice… Use a cardboard box at bottom of which you can cut a circle large enough to slip over the drum. I like to make a tent held with clips on the lifelines.
  4. Start from the top. It might just be secured by a simple Allen bolt. some times, a spring ring is  located in a grove. That’s where the small screwdriver can come into play. On self tailing winches, the top plate can have two holes or two notches. Delicately insert a soft metal tool ( very cheap screwdriver )  alternatively in each side’s notch and tap with the mallet. A  needle plier can help here. But you should be able to turn it by hand.
  5. Put all the parts in a bucket. Keep the pieces of each with separate! I use a series of cut-off anti-freeze bottles.  Or a “Tupperware”. They resist to solvents.
  6. At the shop, I take pictures and start to wash each part. If possible, follow the instructions of the winch manufacturer. However, as explained later, the winch is so dirty that we have to be more aggressive.
    A WeeWee Pad is a good table cover. Doing it outside reduce smells.
  7. Re-grease and remount. Practical sailor published a good analysis of the performance of various lubricants. Do not grease the owls (small cams).

The meat of this particular topic: cleaning!
It is good practice to rinse the winches and other blocks every time possible, to remove salt, sand and grit. Therefore, dunking all parts in plain water is a good start in my maintenance process
Then what solvent could we use? This comparative test is not highly scientific as it only compares four winches on the same boat. Different greases, different frequency and conditions of usage, different climates and different maintenance conditions will affect these results.
I also did not contact the manufacturer to define the way some polyamide or other plastic roller bearing cages could absorb or expand while stagnating in different cleaning products. My results are highly subjective, pragmatic and empirical.


Kerosene versus Spray nine, Simple Green, Diesel fuel, Mineral Spirit
Five winch grime cleaners to compare

Spray Nine, Simple Green, Diesel Fuel, Kerosene, Mineral Spirit (“Odorless” )

I do NOT use gasoline. Even if most parts are made of bronze, this stuff scares me.
Mineral Spirit: dissolves most of the grind, dries fast but leaves some crystallized and mildewy residues on some parts.

Kerosene:  smells, but seems to “glide” off the parts. Does not dry as fast as the others, which leave more time to clean crevices and interstices

Diesel fuel: really smells and your first mate will definitely ask you to get out of the cabin!

 Simple Green: Overnight bath seem to have worked surprisingly well. It seems that both water borne solutions were effective on grime, but not as aggressive on grease. I found a lot of sediments on the bottom of the cleaning vessels. Simple Green All-Purpose Cleaner is a water-based cleaner with a pH of 8.5 to 9.5. This is very basic and can alter paint and some finish. I did not see any effect on the stainless nor on the bronze parts of the winches I cleaned.

Spray Nine: Worked similarly to Simple Green. It contains Ethoxylated C9-C11 alcohols that are very toxic to marine environment and should be banned from yachts… In fact, I did not finds any advantage versus simple green.

Disposal and recycling: I let dry most of the rugs before disposal in an approved municipal waste site ( your curb side… as per EPA suggests for dry paints ).
Soaps were poured through a coffee filter and stored in separate containers for future very dirty jobs.
Kerosene is in fact a type of Diesel fuel. Since there was no water in it, I filtered it with the Diesel fuel and poured it in my 40 years old Volvo MD11C fuel tank with a full fill. The Racor filter will take care of the minute dust left.

Conclusion ?  Kerosene… It seems it lubricates the parts while cleaning.

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